Vietnam is reported to be quietly developing a state-supported fishing boat militia to hold off China at sea. The fishing militia is being created at a time when the two sides talk about easing territorial disputes.
That is the opinion of experts who follow those disputes.
Vietnam watchers say the country is asking its commercial fishers to use stronger boats and take military-trained people to sea in case of a clash with Chinese fishers. China has its own fishing militia operating in the same waters.
“I think it’s a good policy to avoid future conflicts where militia fishermen are out in the sea,” said Trung Nguyen. He serves as dean of international relations at the Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.
Vietnam has been working to develop the fishing militia since at least 2009. Over that time, the two countries have been holding talks. Just last week, Vietnam’s Communist Party general secretary met the visiting Chinese foreign minister. The party official suggested “joint safeguarding (of) maritime peace,” China’s Xinhua News Agency reported.
Vietnam may be trying to appear strong now in case talks fail to produce results, noted Eduardo Araral of the National University of Singapore’s school of public diplomacy.
How the militia works
The Vietnamese fishing militia has not gone to battle with China. If the militia did, it would risk facing the third largest military in the world.
But Vietnamese military forces are arming fishing boats, said Southeast Asia expert Carl Thayer. That may be similar to the deployment of former soldiers to help keep order as needed on land in Vietnam, Thayer noted.
The Vietnamese government requires conscription, he added, so fishermen would already have some military skills.
“Putting them at sea would just be getting people the right age and giving them that training,” he said. “All they did is move what they do on land, how to defend factories … and extend that to sea.
Thayer is emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
Thirteen fishing militia platoons have been helping more than 3,000 fishermen work near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. That information comes from a 2017 study by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. China controls the Paracels, but Vietnam also claims the islands.
The study found that more than 10,000 fishermen and about 2,000 fishing boats in southern Vietnam have received military equipment.
In 2014, Vietnam prepared a list of rules to aid fishermen who build “modern large capacity ships” to expand their reach, the study found. It said Vietnamese banks had lent $176 million to fishermen for improvements to about 400 ships.
Record of clashes
China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. Vietnam says it should control the sea’s waters off its long north-south coastline, extending into the Paracels and Spratly Islands.
Sailors died in clashes between the two countries in 1974 and 1988. In 2014, the deployment of a Chinese oil rig in the South China Sea caused a boat-rammingincident at sea and deadly rioting in Vietnam against Chinese interests.
China has long had its own fishing militia with military support and attention from the Chinese President, notes the United States-based Naval War College. Armed fishing boats help defend China’s maritime claims by pushing away foreign boats, the political intelligence service Stratfor reported in 2016.
Five other governments claim all or parts of the South China Sea. They oppose Chinese efforts to build up and expand islands in the waterway.
Vietnam and China often hold talks about settling maritime problems, but talks often fall short of a decision because of historic distrust, Araral said. He added that Vietnam may be sending China the message that while we talk, we assert our rights.
A Vietnamese fishing militia will not be as large as China’s militia, he said, but Vietnam feels it must try.
I’m Susan Shand
Susan Shand adapted this story from VOA. George Grow was the editor.